July 31, 2007

Schlesinger to Kennedy: Chill Out, Dude! Part 4 (of 4)

Arthur Schlesinger was a noted historian and a scholar. His book on the Kennedy years, “A Thousand Days,” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1966. That was his second Pulitzer, having received the first one 20 years earlier for “The Age of Jackson.”

No doubt he taught his children to “tell the truth” and “treat your neighbors well” and “do onto others” and all that other stuff that he had to set aside when he went to work for the Kennedy Administration.

There’s no indication that I’m aware of to suggest that Schlesinger participated in the post-Bay of Pigs plans of murder and sabotage known as Operation Mongoose, but much of this information is still classified, and perhaps “too grown up” for us “children” to consume with any level of sympathetic appreciation.

“Kennedy would hardly have initiated the project himself,” Schlesinger wrote of Bay of Pigs in the Boston Globe on April 17, 2001, 40 years after the invasion (although Kennedy did initiate Operation Mongoose). “Allen W. Dulles, the head of the CIA, detecting limited enthusiasm on Kennedy’s part, told the new president not to worry. He assured Kennedy that the invasion would set off uprisings behind the line and defections from Castro’s militia, and that if things went badly, the invaders could easily join anti-Castro guerrilla bands in the Escambray Mountains.”

I appreciate his loyalty to JFK, but it seems a bit “old world” to blame the CIA for what was, essentially, a presidential decision. Kennedy was a sophisticated and intelligent man (this was no G.W. Jr. playing war with his father’s empire) and should have known better.

“The Bay of Pigs was indeed a perfect failure,” wrote Schlesinger. “But for Kennedy it was also an effective, if expensive, education.” (Isn’t it nice when Presidents can learn from their mistakes?) But then Schlesinger returns to blaming the CIA. “Like intelligence agencies the world over, the CIA believed it knew the requirements of national security better than transient elected officials like presidents, and it invoked the excuse of ‘plausible deniability’ to act as it deemed best without informing those to whom the agency was nominally accountable.”

Saddest of all is that we seem to agree that this is how our government will work. There’s just nothing we can do about it, in spite of telling ourselves and others that we’re “citizens,” not “subjects…” and that we tell the government what we want, not the other way around.


July 25, 2007

Schlesinger to Kennedy: Chill Out, Dude! Part 3 (of 4)

In the memo of April 10, 1961 (“Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1963” Doc No. 86, Page 196) Arthur Schlesinger, Special Assistant to the President, offers John Fitzgerald Kennedy tips on lying: “When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials. At no point should the President be asked to lend himself to the cover operation. For this reason, there seems to be merit in Secretary Rusk’s suggestion that someone other than the President make the final decision and to do so in his absence—someone whose head can later be placed on the block if things go terribly wrong.” [This principle is still applicable in the 21st Century, but Schlesinger ignores the fact that the sacrificial lamb can later be granted a presidential pardon.]

The memo provides sample “prepped answers” to potential media questions. But why not just blame the CIA? “We will have to be prepared to show” he wrote, “that the alleged CIA personnel were errant idealists or soldiers-of-fortune working on their own.”

After the embarrassment at Bay of Pigs, the CIA absorbed much of the blame. (Forty-some years later, they again took the blame for a different President’s decision to go to war.)

Upon returning home (on May 3, 1961) from a two-week trip to Western Europe, Schlesinger wrote Kennedy another memo about “Reactions to Cuba in Western Europe.” What he found was “a hunger for a rational explanation of the Cuban operation.” He said that “the available stories had left most people baffled and incredulous.”

Over the long term, he said, “I think we have suffered a serious but by no means fatal loss of confidence in our intelligence and responsibility. This can be easily recouped if we seem to return to more intelligent and responsible ways in the future.” [This reminds me of the “clearer heads will prevail” comment in the film Thirteen Days. Schlesinger seems to be pointing out that this is the time for clearer heads.]

The invasion, he sums up, “is greatly feared as forecasting future directions of U.S. policy.”

That fear was prophetic. The first thing the Kennedy administration did after Bay of Pigs was to implement Operation Mongoose, with Bobby Kennedy as designated bulldog in charge. This is where the wacky assassination schemes rose to a new level [although many sound like rejects from Warner Brothers Studios’ series of adventure shorts starring the Road Runner & the silent and inward Wyle E. Coyote].

The question remains, would the Cubans have felt the need for Soviet missiles had Operation Mongoose not been implemented? In an interview that ran in the Miami Herald on October 20, 2002, Schlesinger referred to the operation as “silly and stupid,” giving the Cuban government “a legitimate fear of an American Invasion.”


July 23, 2007

Schlesinger to Kennedy: Chill Out, Dude! Part 2 (of 4)

On April 5, 1961, ten days before the bombings that launched the Bay of Pigs operation, Special Assistant to the President, Arthur Schlesinger, wrote in a memo (“Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1963” Doc No. 81, Page 186) to President John F. Kennedy that “I am in favor of a continuation and expansion of the present approach to Cuba—i.e., quiet infiltration of anti-Castro exiles into Cuba and subsequent support through air drops.” But he adds in the same paragraph, that “in present circumstances the operation seems to me to involve many hazards; and on balance—and despite the intelligence and responsibility with which the case for the action has been presented—I am against it.”

Further down he says it “will seem increasingly intolerable to subject ourselves to the humiliation of a defeat in Cuba.”

Regarding the political fallout from the invasion, win or loose, Schlesinger’s memo identifies three options: evade the questions, deny involvement, or declare ignorance. His 3 choices can be boiled down to 2 courses of action: say nothing, or lie through your teeth—this last one being a presidential favorite, as well-crafted lies get better mileage.

Five days later, on April 10, Schlesinger penned another memo (“Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1963,” Doc No. 86, Page 196) to President Kennedy. The subject was “Cuba: Political, Diplomatic and Economic Problems.”

Section 2 of this memo is quoted in full:

“2. What is at stake. In the days since January 20, your administration has changed the face of American foreign policy. The soberness of style, the absence of cold war clichés, the lack of self-righteous and sermonizing, the impressive combination of reasonableness and firmness, the generosity to new ideas, the dedication to social progress, the tough-minded idealism of purpose—all these factors have transformed (to use that repellent word) the ‘image’ of the United States before the world. The result has been to go far toward restoring confidence in the intelligence, maturity and restraint of American leadership. People around the world have forgotten the muddling and moralizing conservation of the Eisenhower period with surprising speed. The United States is emerging again as a great, mature and liberal nation, coolly and intelligently dedicated to the job of stopping Communism, strengthening the free and neutral nations and working for peace. It is this reawakening world faith in America which is at stake in the Cuban operation.”

Later he adds one of the most honest statements you’ll find in the volumes of meetings and plans and memos and briefings: “A great many people simply do not at this moment see that Cuba presents so grave and compelling a threat to our national security as to justify a course of action which much of the world will interpret as calculated aggression against a small nation in defiance both of treaty obligations and of the international standards we have repeatedly asserted against the Communist world.” Here Schlesinger makes a good point that is even more relevant today.

Next: How to lie to the nation and blame it on the CIA.


July 21, 2007

Schlesinger to Kennedy: Chill Out, Dude! Part 1 (of 4)

On any day of the week, you can walk up to the Government Information Center on the 5th floor of the San Francisco Public Library (the Main) and look through memos and notes written by government officials during the beginning of the 1960s… the time of the Cold War, the Kennedy brothers and the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, the Missile Crisis… and independent news media (before the corporate takeover)…

Even though some information has been blacked out (for our own protection), you can still get a feeling of where the heart and soul of the country’s leadership was at that time.

Many of the documents from the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy blunders at Bay of Pigs, and immediately following, are available for our review and amusement in the “US, Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1963.” Other similar documents, previously classified, are available at the National Security Archives web site.

We know that Kennedy eventually wised-up to the proposed Cowboy-style of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and saved the world from nu-cu-lear devastation. But before the gargantuan failure at Bay of Pigs, he “ate up” their servings with gusto, although, to be fair, not quite as heartily as the Bush presidents might have.

Special Assistant to the President, Arthur Schlesinger, was never fooled by the John-Wayne-make-believers buzzing about the political sphere at the time. He kept quiet during the many meetings prior to the invasion, but he recognized that you could not just invade a country without a good reason (or excuse). On his memo of February 11, 1961 (about a month and a week before the BOP invasion) he offered Kennedy a good excuse in the idea “to induce Castro to take an offensive action first…” It would be possible, he wrote, to “lure Castro into sending a few boatloads of men” to Haiti, which “could be portrayed as an effort to overthrow the Haitian regime. If only Castro could be induced to commit an offensive act, then the moral issue would be clouded…” [This memo can be found at the National Security Archives: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/bayofpigs/19610211.pdf]

In the same memo, Schlesinger asks “could we not bring down Castro and Trujillo at the same time?” A two-for-one sort of thing would “show that we have a principled concern for human freedom and do not object only to left-wing dictators.” (A presidential advisor concerned with principles? How very Star-Trek!)

Next: Just before the invasion, Schlesinger wrote another memo in which he outright opposed the operation, but not without first supporting the concept of covert violence.


July 08, 2007

Mark Twain and Cuba

When the US entered the war against Spain (the Spanish-American War to some) in 1898, America’s most noted author was in Europe, where he actively opposed the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902).

Mark Twain originally supported the war against Spain, considering it a just and noble cause to help liberate people fighting for independence. In a letter of June 1898 to Joseph H. Twitchell he wrote, “I have never enjoyed a war—even in written history—as I am enjoying this one… It is a worthy thing to fight for one’s freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s. And I think this is the first time it has been done.”

Just over two years later, in a speech at the Lotos Club on November 10 1900, he expressed his disappointment with the war in the Philippines, and reasserted his belief in the righteousness of helping liberate Cuba: “Now, we have fought a righteous war since I have been gone, and that is rare in history—a righteous war is so rare that it is almost unknown in history; but by the grace of that war we set Cuba free, and we joined her to those three or four free nations that exist on this earth; and we started out to set those poor Filipinos free too, and why, why, why that most righteous purpose of ours has apparently miscarried I suppose I never shall know.”

On his return to the US in October, 1900, he said to a reporter, “I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

A close reading of the Treaty of Paris (which ended the war) gave Twain a shocking new perspective; the approaching “imperialist” nature of the world’s emerging new superpower. He opposed imperialist expansion in Europe, and considered this a sad and disturbing turn of events.

“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris,” he’s quoted in the New York Herald, October 16, 1900, “and I have seen that we do not intend to free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.

We have also pledged the power of this country to maintain and protect the abominable system established in the Philippines by the Friars.

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

Twain became deeply troubled by what he viewed as a sudden turn in American foreign policy, but he was much more disturbed by Vermont Senator Redfield Proctor’s defense of the US Army’s use of the “water cure” torture on a Filipino priest. The man accused of ordering the torture was Captain Cornelius Brownell. During his court martial, Brownell admitted openly to having administered the water cure “by my order several times to different natives.” On January 28 1903, Senator Proctor defended the practice as legitimate.

Attempting to write his views about the act and its defense on the floor of the US Senate, Twain found himself so disturbed by the details that he was not able to write about it. He later described the soldiers involved in this act, and the politicians that defended them as “Christian butchers.”

“It is by the goodness of God,” he wrote in Following the Equator, “that in our country we have those three precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience – and the prudence never to practice any of them.”